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Third-episode verdict: Billions (US: Showtime; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on February 2, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

BarrometerBillions.jpgA Barrometer rating of 2

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime. Starts January 17
In the UK: Acquired by Sky Atlantic

With shows above a certain level of quality, you offer a bit more leniency. Lesser shows stick everything into their pilot episode, trying to get you to watch subsequent episodes by putting all their cards on the table straight away: "This is what we are. This is what you're going to get if you keep watching." As such, you can tell almost immediately if those shows have got what it takes to make you watch.

And then they tend to neither improve nor worsen, simply offering you more of the same until you're bored. Or maybe they just offer less and less each week as they run out of ideas.

But with shows that are obviously well written from the outset, you're prepared to bed down. When you read the first chapter of a good book, you don't immediately drop it just because you don't get how all the characters inter-relate or even what the overall plot is - you take it on trust that that will be developed, and developed well, in subsequent chapters. There may even be flaws, but if the good significantly exceeds the flaws, you'll keep reading.

And so it is with Billions. Now the first episode was really very good. Very good. A real-life chess match between the US's most powerful lawyer (Paul Giamatti) against Wall Street's most powerful hedge fund manager (Damian Lewis), it was clever, had crackling dialogue and insight. Okay, so it had that weird thing with the dominatrix and Giamatti, and to be honest, both Lewis and Giamatti are miscast. There was also no blindingly obvious reason why Giamatti was going after Lewis, other than Lewis had a lot of money, since the show didn't bother to depict Lewis doing anything bad. But it was fascinating to watch.

So I gave it latitude. All good things come to those who wait, etc, etc. Give the show time to dot the i's and cross the t's, I thought.

Now, this wasn't necessarily a mistake. I gave Rubicon about nine episodes of latitude and was much rewarded for my patience. But three episodes into Billions and we've still not had any real indication of wrong-doing by Lewis. He's a dick. Indeed, if Billions has a theme, it's that powerful people - particularly but not exclusively men - are dicks and do dickish things. The more money and/or power they have, the more dickish they are, often openly, too.

But that appears to be the extent of his crimes, beyond perhaps a bit of minor insider trading. He's not foreclosing mortgages on the penniless, he's not destroying companies and jobs for shits and giggles, he's not even doing terrible things with prostitutes on super-yachts.

He's just rich. And for some reason Giamatti wants to take him down. It's not exactly Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail, is it? 

And that would be a minor issue if the show had other assets. But it's started to divest itself of them. The second episode had a lovely piece of real-world Wall Street (spoiler alert: the simulated SEC investigation), but all that chess-playing has diminished by about 50%. It's still there and Lewis' wife, Malin Åkerman, has started to do the female equivalent, deploying some clever social gambits against someone she'd quite like to burn in Hell, but the move/counter-move structure of the first episode has largely dissipated.

In its place, we've had some comedy, which at least has been amusing, but not especially clever and is usually accompanied by everyone smirking. We've also had some more ridiculous sex. Didn't think that urinating dominatrix fun of the pilot was quite enough? Well that's back in episode three, with a cattle prod for luck, as well as discussions of the emotional implications of liking ATM. No, it's probably not what you think it is, so go Google it.

Meanwhile, episode two gave us cunnilingual naked lesbians snorting cocaine off each other. And a man being disciplined by a muscular dwarf in a wet room. 

Realistic depiction of Wall Street culture? I have no idea, but it really doesn't advance the plot or characterisation, beyond referring us back to the theme of "People with power are dicks and do dick things."

Based purely on the first episode and the fact Showtime has already given the show a second season, I'm going to stick with this, as there's clearly some clever writers working on it. But I've read reviews that suggest that at least some of the trends I've mentioned above are still true by episode five. That's a lot of leniency I'm going to have to offer.

When it's at its best Billions is a very clever piece of writing. That best is starting to recede into the distance, along with my patience. Fingers crossed, both will return at some point. In the meantime, if you enjoy lots of powerful men (and women) trying to be alphas and trying to see who can pee highest up a wall, Billions is going to be the highlight of your week.

Barrometer rating: 2
Would the show be better with female leads? Yes
TMINE prediction: Already renewed for a second season

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What have you been watching? Including Childhood's End, Legends, Limitless, The Expanse and Supergirl

Posted on December 18, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

It's "What have you been watching?", my chance to tell you what movies and TV I’ve been watching recently that I haven't already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I've missed them.

The usual "TMINE recommends" page features links to reviews of all the shows I've ever recommended, and there's also the Reviews A-Z, for when you want to check more or less anything I've reviewed ever. And if you want to know when any of these shows are on in your area, there’s Locate TV - they’ll even email you a weekly schedule.

It's the last round-up before TMINE takes its Christmas break, but as I was away for a couple of days at the start of the week and I'm about to head off to YA Christmas party, I've not yet caught up on The Bridge. Otherwise, though, I'm up to date with all the regulars, so after the jump, we can talk about the latest episodes of The Expanse, Legends, Limitless and Supergirl.

Elsewhere, I've reviewed the first episode of Syfy's The Magicians but I've also been watching a new Syfy mini-series, although I'm only up to episode two (of three), so not too many spoilers if you've seen the rest, please. Although it's based on a book I've already read, so they might not be spoilers, if you see what I mean.

Childhood's End (US: Syfy)
This adaptation of the classic Arthur C Clarke novel sees aliens come to Earth promising to turn the world into a utopia, by helping humanity to end poverty, inequality, global warming, etc, etc. To make things easier, since they don't think humans will like their true appearance, they pick on an American farmer (Mike Vogel) to be their official spokesperson, turning his life upside down. But various people, including one of the few remaining scientists Osy Ikhile and newspaper proprietor Colm Meaney, who dubs the aliens 'the overlords', think the arrivals have an ulterior motive. And maybe they do…

Although the narrative is compressed from the original decades-long story to something a bit shorter to allow the same cast and characters to appear throughout, the show is nevertheless pretty faithful to the original, mulling over what would happen to humanity if we ever did get a utopia, particularly from an extraterrestrial rather than religious source, and whether we'd even like it. The story also plays with the fear of the unknown and the different, religion, and the perils of science, which it constantly subverts, with the aliens seemingly benevolent at each twist of the story. Well aware that numerous similarly-themed, more conventional movies and TV shows have appeared since the original was written (such as V, Signs and Independence Day), the adaptation uses them to its advantage, even referencing them at points ("What do you think their weakness will be? In Signs, it was water…"). 

Filmed in Australia and written by Matthew Graham (Life on Mars, Doctor Who), it's replete with Aussie and British actors including Ikhile, Julian McMahon (Charmed, Fantastic Four, Nip/Tuck), Daisy Betts (The PlayerThe Last ResortPersons Unknown), Don Hany (Serangoon Road), Charles Dance (everything), and various members of The Doctor Blake Mysteries cast. Knowing how everything winds up does ruin it a little for me, female roles do feel a bit 1950s and I'm finding the second episode a bit poorly paced at the moment, but it's a jolly decent and even surprisingly funny effort by Syfy (which is now committed to its new 'fewer, bigger, better' mantra) that harks back to the network's halcyon days of projects such as The Lost Room. Matthew Graham for next Doctor Who showrunner?

Continue reading "What have you been watching? Including Childhood's End, Legends, Limitless, The Expanse and Supergirl"

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Review: The Romeo Section 1x1 (Canada: CBC)

Posted on October 20, 2015 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Romeo Section

In Canada: Wednesdays, 9pm, CBC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

If there's one thing Canadians can't seem to get enough of, it seems to be spy shows. Whether it's as a stupid comedy (Insecurity), a reasonably smart cross-border politicking drama (The Border), or as a very smart undercover cop show (Intelligence), sneakiness and lies have been a mainstay of Canada's TV output for the best part of a decade. 

In part, that's down to Chris Haddock, the Canadian writer/producer behind cop shows Da Vinci's Inquest, Da Vinci's Town Hall and CBS's The Handler, who first launched the genre in Canada with the slow-moving Intelligence. He's now back in the game with The Romeo Section, an even slower-moving spy show. 

It stars the inexplicably Glaswegian Andrew Airlie as the equally inexplicably named Wolfgang McGee, a globe-trotting Vancouver university professor who runs 'the Romeo Section' - a group of male and female undercover spies involved in sexy time with various intelligence targets, international and domestic. It's their job to inflitrate the Triads, crime rings, cartels and other criminal groups, to get the information Canada needs to destroy them.

To get them to do this, Airlie goes around Hong Kong and Vancouver, visiting shops, libraries, dark gloomy places, racetracks and numerous other places, where he has mumbly, Glaswegian-accented conversations with people that are so arch, you can't tell if it's bad writing or some kind of spy code. Then he goes away again, information gathered, so he can brood back in his office or mumble with his handler (Eugene Lipinski from Intelligence, Da Vinci's Town Hall et al, but also the original BBC Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), while his assets go off and have more sexy times. Main asset is the conflicted and bearded Juan Riedinger (Narcos), who spends a lot of his time shagging mental mob wife Stephanie Bennett (UnREAL, iZombie).

The whole show has the veneer of quality and intelligence, except it's one of those veneers where you assume that it's good and intelligent because nothing much happens for great long chunks of time and no one talks above a whisper, not because it's telling you anything you don't know or because of the gripping plot and characters. Not by a long chalk is this another Rubicon. You want it to be Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I'm about 90% sure it's actually A Bit of Fry & Laurie.

It's not badly written, it does avoid the excesses of a lot of spy shows, it does have some smarts to it and I'm sure it'll have its proponents and fans, who'll be addicted by episode eight, when something might actually have happened. But I won't be sticking around until then, I'm afraid.


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